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Ceviche: a zesty coastal tradition
By ELIZABETH WAYLAND-SEAL
When you pare it down to the basics, ceviche (pronounced “say-vee-chay”) is basically raw fish in an acidic (and often spicy) broth. While the lime juice makes the fish appear cooked, it isn't. So let's be very clear: only make ceviche when you have FRESH fish.
(For those of you who have never had to judge the difference between kind-of-fresh and really fresh, here's a quick tip: fresh fish does not smell like fish. It should smell like clean, salty air. Technically, you can cook the fish before using it, but then you'd have escabiche – a completely different dish.)
There's some debate over whether ceviche was introduced and/or developed by the Spanish conquerors of Central and South America. They certainly are the ones that tossed in the lime juice – no citrus fruit grew in the New World until the Europeans brought it over.
But Peru lays claim to the dish, pointing to evidence the coastal indigenous people of that area were preparing and eating fish marinated in fermented fruit juices long before the Spaniards arrived. Peruvian historian Javier Pulgar Vidal argues the name itself comes from a Quechua word "siwichi," which means “fresh fish” or “young fish.”
But the other likely origin of the word is Arabic, brought to the New World with the Moorish women who accompanied the invaders. An Arabic word, pronounced like "sibich," refers to meat cooked in acid. There's also food historians who claim ceviche came the other direction, east from Polynesia.
Since the cooks of Peru produced the first modern form of ceviche – a mixture of fish or shellfish, citrus juice, chiles, onions, salt and usually cilantro. The range of flavors can be very broad, from El Salvador's "black clam" ceviche, prepared with a local variant of mint and worcestershire sauce, to Ecuador's tomato sauce-based version, which is usually served with deep-fried plantain chunks or chips.
Carlos Hernandez, who owns and runs Cancun Restaurant, not unsurprisingly goes straight for the classic Mexican version of ceviche: shrimp, lime juice, avocado, diced tomatoes and a handful of add-ins for textural interest.
The mixture can be quite juicy, to the point of being watery. At Cancun it's served over tortilla chips, which help sop up some of the juice.
If you're really hard-core, though, you can serve the ceviche straight, eating the fish and vegetables with a fork, with nibbles of chips or chicharrones in between bites. Then, when there's nothing left in the bowl except the spicy, tart marinade, you lift the bowl and drink. This is known as "Tiger Milk" or "Panther Milk" in some circles and is touted as a sure-fire cure for a hangover.
So, to recap: use the freshest fish you can get your hands on, adjust the amount of jalapeno to taste and partake of the "Tiger Milk" at your own risk.
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1 pound peeled and deveined medium raw shrimp
1 cup fresh lime juice
5 plum tomatoes, diced
1 red onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 fresh serrano or jalapeno pepper, diced
chopped fresh cilantro to taste
2 avocadoes, sliced
Kosher salt and pepper, to taste
Saltine crackers, corn chips or Mexican tostadas (fried corn tortillas), to serve
Place shrimp in a glass bowl and cover with lime juice to marinate (or cook) for about 15 minutes, or until they turn pink and opaque.
Meanwhile, place the diced plum tomatoes, carrot, onions and jalapeno in a second, large glass bowl.
Remove shrimp from lime juice, reserve the juice. Dice shrimp and add to the bowl of vegetables. Pour in the remaining lime juice marinade. Add cilantro, salt and pepper to taste. Toss gently to mix.
Serve over chips, saltine crackers, or tostadas.
Garnish with avocado slices.
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